September 2, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Bowling for Noodles at Ippudo 

Waiters in pajamas arrive with bowls of gloriously noodled soup. Photo: Steven Richter
Waiters in pajamas arrive with bowls of gloriously noodled soup. Photo: Steven Richter

        Some people are obsessed ramen-hounds. Not me. When I think ramen, I think instant deep-fried noodles with dehydrated bits of something in cellophane packages to reconstitute in boiling water. Well, of course I know that the real ramen is Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a pork bone and vegetable stock. And yes, there were noodle soups in Tokyo last February that provoked ecstatic gasps of pleasure, but I cannot tell you if they were officially ramen. I guess that was ramen with a poached egg afloat the one time I joined the queue at Momofuku and won a counter spot at noon. But standing in line at the end of a $16 taxi ride is not an exercise I long to repeat, no matter how fabulous the soup.  I see restaurants that don’t take reservations as a personal affront.

        “You must taste the ramen at Setagaya,” an acolyte of the faith urges me one day at a Thai lunch.

        “But I hear they don’t take reservations and it’s impossible to get in,” I say.

        “Of course you can get in.  I go at 2:30, after the lunch rush.” I can’t see myself trekking from the Upper West Side to the East Village at 2:30 in the afternoon.

        But tonight our friends have driven in from New Jersey – parked the car in one of those $25-for-the-first-half hour garages.  Alas, the din in the wine bar where we’ve reserved has sent us fleeing. Without a reservation in prime time New York city.

        “We’re a block from Casa Mono,” says the Road Food Warrior.

        “But there’s a line and we won’t get in.”

Savory pork belly in sweet soft buns stave off starvation.  Photo: Steven Richter

         “We should have met at Ippudo. It’s so good,” says our friend Frank, who habitually trolls the streets of Manhattan scoping out real estate and dining trends. “Let’s check it out.  It’s so close.”

        I’d read
Crab and crunch. Photo: Steven Richter
about the first American seed of Japan’s “Ramen King” and had not been tempted so far to brave a mob scene. “We agreed we would go somewhere that takes reservations,” I protest. “It’s 8:30. It’s going to be packed.”

        “Let’s just walk over and see.  Maybe the early birds are leaving.”

        The early birds are indeed trickling out, but we’re forced to cut through a gaggle of young Japanese possessively pacing the sidewalk, the vestibule crowded with defiant dawdlers with priority, and the entire student population of Japan in Manhattan inside. Cheerful, even smug, as they share a beer at the bar or a padded white tuffet against the wall, flirting with their dates. The entire world is ahead of us on the waiting list.  The ferocity of their prepossession sucks all the air out of the room.  Half a dozen women are fanning themselves with bright red, black and white Ipuddo fans. It’s hot and stuffy.

        “Half an hour,” says the lead booker at the podium.

        “But I called and you said twenty minutes,” our friend from New Jersey bluffs.

        His wife and I grab fans from a basket next to the podium. I wonder if sinking to the floor in a faint would help.

        She confers with her chirpy second who rushes off to check the hustle and flow. It is confirmed: “Half an hour.”

        “We love your noodles,” says New Jersey Frank.  “We have bad knees. We are old. Don’t the Japanese have a special reverence for the elderly?” 

Ipuddo feels like home for Manhattan’s Japanese expats and students. Photo: Steven Richter

        The adorable gorgons both smile. “Half an hour.  Only four tables of four ahead of you.”

        Gossip. Catching up. Complaining about how hard it is to find fabulous shoes with flat heels.   A trip to the ladies room in the basement. In no time, exactly half an hour has passed and the chirpy hostess leads us to a huge booth with the Japanese alphabet in relief on the wall. Instead of the fast food plastic minimalism I’m expecting, it’s a stage set: padded leather chairs, calligraphy, glass-topped tables framing coils of rope, chefs in fabulous pajamas, bamboo splayed overhead and loud cries of welcome and confirmation: “Irashaimase,” “Hai,” “Onegaishimasu.”

        “You’re supposed to feel like you’re in Japan,” says Frank.

This spicy pork (bakuretu) tofu is a major hit at our table.  Photo: Steven Richter

         Obviously someone has noticed we’re not Japanese and thoughtfully assigns us what seems to be the lone Caucasian waiter. Since ramen traditionally comes last, we start with beer and steamed buns, two to the $8 portion – the pork belly stuffed dough much better than the chicken, needless to say. “Angel shrimp” from the handwritten daily specials list – head and shell on, carefully cooked - crab salad with sesame dressing, tightly fried bits of chicken with lotus root chips, and deep-fried vegetables in dashi sauce are pleasant enough preludes. Even those at our table who can happily live without tofu love the surprisingly peppery tofu and pork hot pot. The servers are cheerful and friendly, a parade of five or six different waiters delivering our order. They linger to bask in our enthusiasm as if they don’t see senior citizens that often and the entire crew, imported along with the Japanese alphabet, will have to go home if we’re not happy.

A grinning waitress delivers the smoked pork with vegetables. Photo: Steven Richter

         But all this is just a prelude to the porky climax. Have we already eaten too much? Silly question. The ramen arrives, and appetites revive. It’s Ipuddo’s special version, tonkotsu, a blending of pork bone and pork broths in large bowls ($12 and $13 dollars) with individual bowls since it’s obvious we’re sharing.   We’ve ordered four variations: Shiromaru NY, with slices of simmered Berkshire pork, cabbage, red onion, black wood ear mushroom and scallions. Akamari Modern, with house special sauce, miso paste and garlic oil. Karaka-men, with ground pork…we ask for it spicy. And Miso Ramen, soybean based with Berkshire pork, cabbage and scallion. Splendidly firm house-made noodles sit in these luscious puddles.   I prefer the spicy Karaka-men and the complex miso but if I’d only tasted the Akamaru I’d have been sufficiently thrilled.  All is silence except for sips and slurps, except toward the end, a call for a $3 “topping bowl” of juicy braised pork belly. Why hadn’t we thought of it sooner?  The $2 option of kae-dama, another ball of noodles to finish off the remaining broth, is redundant, as there is little remaining broth and even those who never know when they’ve eaten enough know they have eaten enough.  Are we the only foursome dropping $200 here tonight?  I can only wonder.

65 Fourth Avenue at 10th Street 212 388 0088


The Name Is Not What Counts 

Grom’s lemon sorbetto is smartly tart, the way my guy loves it. Photo: Steven Richter

        Just because we’re waddlingly full doesn’t mean we won’t stop at Grom for gelati on our way home. It’s my first taste of the Grom’s seduction I’ve heard bandied about.  I’ve been put off by the queue down the avenue for a year now even though the fabled gelateria is just minutes from my home.  Tonight, half an hour before the 11 o’clock closing, there is just one couple ahead of us. I sample the weekly special – caramel sugar with salt – a silken blast of creamy sweet and bitter with a subtly salty afterkick, an odd partner to the super serious double chocolate sorbetto it sits next to in my “small” $5 cup. But if I eat one half at a time, I can handle it.

2165 Broadway at 76th Street 212 362 1837